So M&S is closing 30 UK stores, focusing on food only in some locations and generally taking radical steps to fix itself. Well, it’s about time.
The company said today that its half-year revenue rose just 0.9% to £4.99bn but its underlying pre-tax profits plunged on the back of Clothing & Homewares struggles.
It also said (as widely expected) that it will focus its international business on a franchise model, exiting its fully-owned lossmaking stores across 10 markets (yes, 10) to cut annual losses of £45m and launch a five-year plan to improve productivity of its UK Store Estate.
That means repositioning around 25% of Clothing & Home space while continuing the rollout of its Simply Food stores. The total number of M&S stores will increase but if you want to buy a bra or sweater in your local rather than a sandwich or pre-packed salad, you might be out of luck.
Good news and bad
The reasons are clear. In the latest half-year, Food sales rose 4% (although they dipped 0.9% on a comparable basis) while Clothing & Home fell 5.3% and 5.9% on a comps basis. M&S.com rose only 0.3% (in a world where online ops always rise in double-digits, that’s bad). Total UK sales were up 0.1% but down 3% on a comps basis and International sales fell 1%.
The company said it’s making progress in the clothing area with its full price value and volume shares rising, although it saw a 20bps decline in overall value share (Kantar World Panel).
M&S said it now has 10% fewer clothing lines and has introduced a more contemporary colour palette for autumn, offers better fit and saw strong performances in core areas such as bras and T-shirts. And tweaks to areas where it already leads the market are starting to have an effect. For example, school uniform sales were up around 10% year-on-year in Q2.
It’s made changes to store layout too and taken on more staff to help customers on the shop floor. “As a result, our customer satisfaction levels are the highest they have been for over three years.”
And it’s focusing on the brands “that are most relevant to our customers, such as Autograph, per una and Blue Harbour” but will remove the Indigo, Collezione and North Coast sub-brands.
And those store closures? It has 304 ‘full line’ stores selling both Clothing & Home and Food and with its Outlet stores, these account for around two thirds of its UK selling space. Its new five-year plan will mean fewer, “more inspirational” Clothing & Home stores that offer customers better range authority in more convenient locations with higher space productivity. It will cut around 10% of Clothing & Home space with 60 fewer full line stores.
There will be around 30 full line closures, and downsizing or replacing around 45 full line stores to Simply Food stores.
And as for the intentional business, that’s going to see big changes. It currently comprises a lossmaking owned business and profitable franchises. So it’s going to cut back on the owned business to focus on those franchises, including its franchised Food business in France.
It will continue to operate owned businesses in Ireland, Hong Kong and Czech Republic, but it will close 53 wholly-owned stores: 10 in China, seven in France, and all of them in Belgium, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.
Wow. that’s big. But as I said, not before time. I’ve been writing about fashion and beauty since the early 80s and I’ve seen M&S go through its glory days. But I started writing daily news online about fashion in early 1999 just as the company was grappling with unaccustomed falls in sales and profits and frankly, despite a few false dawns, the story has been the same in the almost-18 yes ever since.
You see, the turnaround M&S under veteran exec and still-fairly-new CEO Steve Rowe is trying to achieve is the same one a string of CEOs have tried for since the late 90s. Yes, online shopping didn’t amount to a hill of beans in 1999 so that has changed the landscape, but M&S’s issues go far beyond the e-tail revolution.
It just has way too many stores and its fashion offer, in trying to provide something for everyone often ends up providing too much that suits nobody in particular. Its foods are superb, its homewares do a good job (although even in flagship stores large chunks of the homewares offer look like a badly merchandised afterthought).
Bits of its clothing offer are great – intimates spring to mind here. But it alienates too many potential customers by not getting other things right. Take my mum. She’s 90 and still mourning the demise of C&A and BHS. She wanted a dress for my niece’s wedding this year and found one that was perfect in M&S.
Not getting it right
Perfect except for one thing. The size 12 ‘short’ (women born in 1926 rarely look for a size 12 ‘regular’ or ‘long’) came with sleeves that were chimpanzee length. Fortunately a daughter with sewing machine dealt with the problem but given that daughters with sewing machines are increasing rarities these days, it could easily have stayed on the rail.
OK, 90-year-olds aren’t who M&S is really aiming for these days. But they’re not reaching the rest of us either because there’s always something that makes us buy our clothes elsewhere. Millennials love the M&S lunch options but the clothing offer doesn’t really exist for most of them. And for many other target groups there’s someone else who does it better – from H&M, to JD Williams, Asos to Next, Whistles to Simply Be.
Let’s hope Steve Rowe’s eminently sensible plan to get M&S back on track is the right one this time.